AFTER an explosive start to life back in the SPL, Dunfermline looked somewhat disjointed prior to the international break. Domestic business resumes this weekend when Hearts visit Fife, but it is unclear which Dunfermline side awaits them at East End Park.
Will it be the disciplined, confident, attacking version which surged to fourth in the league by mid-August and sat just two points off the summit? Or will it be the more recent incarnation, which looked a sorry shadow of itself in successive 4-0 defeats by Rangers and Aberdeen and slid to second bottom before the two-week interval?
Even Jim McIntyre, manager at East End Park, is privately unsure. Frustration has been a regular accomplice of the SPL’s youngest manager in recent weeks whilst watching his team go from early-season surprise packages to a team on the slippery slope. The international break offered a chance to regroup and, he hopes, instigate a revival.
Hearts’ away record – the Edinburgh club have not won on their travels since February – will provide McIntyre with a degree of optimism, but his priority is rejuvenating the Pars. At the club’s Pitreavie training base, that has been the focus of his efforts over the last ten days.
“We know exactly where we went wrong, we never competed in the games against Rangers and Aberdeen,” he told the Evening News. “We have to be making sure we are competitive, we are in people’s faces and doing the ugly side of the game. We did that in our previous games.
“The two performances against Rangers and Aberdeen were just unacceptable, especially Aberdeen. We’ve got to get back to being resolute and competitive. Our biggest sense of motivation is recovering from our last two results. When you don’t perform you need to try and use that to your advantage. You need a real determination to put a poor result behind you.
“Sometimes you learn more about players when things aren’t going well than when you are flying along nicely. We’ve had difficult spells before with this team and we’ve come through it.
“We’ve told the players that they’ve shown they can compete at this level. What they need to prove is that they can do it over the season. We’re very confident in the players we have, but what they are learning is, if you don’t compete in this league, you are well beaten.
“It’s important they learn from the last two games especially. In the other seven, we’ve always had a chance to win the match. We play Hearts this weekend but it really wouldn’t matter who we were playing. We let ourselves, the club and the fans down with the last two performances. No matter who is coming to East End Park we would be looking to rectify that.”
The message is Hearts must be wary of the wounded animal on Halbeath Road. “Although we’ve only picked up one point from the last five games, we should have beaten Hibs and we should have beaten Kilmarnock,” explained McIntyre. “There wasn’t much wrong with the performances apart from maybe individual errors for the goals we conceded.
“We know it’s night and day between our budget and Hearts’ budget but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a result. We need to remember the level we’re at and where we’ve come from. We’re going to have some dark days but it’s how you respond to them. That’s what we’ll be trying to do against Hearts.”
Dunfermline secured promotion from the First Division in May playing attractive, open football. This has heralded further praise in the SPL and McIntyre is not for compromising on his principles. His captain, the former Hearts left-back Austin McCann, left, believes the manager’s way is correct.
“We play with wide players. As a full-back that is good because there is someone to feed, although sometimes it can leave us a bit open against better teams. The way we play is a credit to the manager, who is still learning because he is a young manager.”
McIntyre’s education has been distinctly ruthless of late, but he gives the impression it is also enjoyable and worthwhile. “It’s a learning curve as much for me as the players each week. You realise what a tough league it is. Nights like Aberdeen are sore to take but that only goes to make you better.”
McIntyre watched Hearts’ recent displays against St Johnstone and Celtic, games which ironically illustrated the Jekyll and Hyde tendencies of Paulo Sergio’s side. St Johnstone was arguably the nadir of the campaign to date for Tynecastle supporters, whilst Celtic was a major highlight.
“We know what we’re up against – a very good side who will be buoyant after beating Celtic,” said McIntyre. “I watched that game and Hearts were excellent. We are the home team so it’s up to us to try and get a result. Hearts will be favourites because of the size and depth of their squad.
“I watched them up at St Johnstone when they never got the result they wanted. They are very organised and disciplined, but they also have real attacking threats and goals in their side. That’s something we need to be very wary of.”
Although Sergio has instilled a contrasting playing style to the direct approach of Jim Jefferies, McIntyre is unfazed. “It’s got absolutely nothing to do with me how they play. From Jefferies’ style to Sergio’s style, it has nothing to do with me. How they play is their business. We will set our team up to try and win the game.”
His task is complicated by the absence of Jason Thomson, Dunfermline’s on-loan Hearts defender. A gentleman’s agreement made during the final weeks of Jefferies’ tenure means he will sit out Saturday’s encounter.
“Hearts have been good enough to loan him out to us and we appreciate that. We will get round the fact he isn’t playing and I’m confident we’ll see a response from those who do play.”